Sorry Playwrights, But Sometimes Bigger Is Better: Behind a Prize that Awards Unbridled Ambition

If Samuel Beckett were alive today, he'd thank his lucky stars he was born in Ireland. His spartan Waiting for Godot, whose set called for merely "a country road" and a "tree," probably wouldn't contend for the Edward M. Kennedy Prize, which, if recent history is any guide, rewards bold, lengthy, and incredibly complex productions.

It also wouldn't help that the prize is earmarked for drama inspired by American history.

I first looked at the prize, created by Jean Kennedy Smith, a former United States ambassador to Ireland to honor her politician brother, back in 2015. The prize focuses on completed works—only plays and musicals that have received a commercial or nonprofit professional production are eligible—and that year's winner was hardly a minimalist affair.

Suzan-Lori Parks' trilogy Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) traced the journey of a slave named Hero, his wife Penny, and the best friend he betrayed, Homer. Spanning a total of three hours, the plays premiered at New York's Public Theater and is the initial trio in a planned nine-play cycle. As for 2016's winner, you may have heard of him. Some guy named Lin-Manuel Miranda whose production, Hamilton, caused only a minor global sensation.

Indeed, the "ambition bar" was set quite high, but you'll be happy to know 2017's recipient of the $100,000 prize, chosen by a jury that playwrights, musical theater writers, and scholars of American history and politics, doesn't disappoint. It's the "genre-busting, glitter-dusting" performance artist Taylor Mac and his musical director, Matt Ray for their 24-hour work, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.

The piece, billed as a "radical fairy realness ritual," is a decade-by-decade walk through American history from 1776 to 2016, told through the songs of the time, reinterpreted through a "radical queer lens." According to the Times, it was performed in its entirety last fall at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, first in three-hour segments and then in a continuous 24-hour marathon, complete with shared audience meals, group dance breaks, and a sleeping loft.

Now that's a commitment. 

If you're a playwright with a soft spot for more, shall we say, sparse productions, I emphasize with you. While the gift is aimed at galvanizing “a new and vigorous exploration of American history and the institutions of American politics among dramatists and creators of musical theater," the last three years suggest you'll want to turn up the ambition to 11 to be in the running.

Don't say I didn't warn you.